' ' Cinema Romantico: Nope

Monday, September 12, 2022


“Cinema,” Grandmaster Marty Scorsese once said, “is a matter of what it’s in the frame and what’s out.” Most movies just live out this truth, but Jordan Peele’s “Nope” explores it. The opening images, a low-angled shot of a blood-covered chimpanzee in a birthday hat on an empty soundstage followed by a death when something falls mysteriously from the sky are as much demonstrations of the camera’s limited viewpoint as they are narrative puzzle pieces. And in mish-mashing sci-fi and western, cowboys and aliens, when a mysterious disc appears in the sky above a California horse farm outside Hollywood, Peele essentially transforms “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” into “Burden of Dreams,” its characters trying to capture footage of this disc with the same intensity Werner Herzog tried to drag a steamship over a hill. It’s an evocation of the moviemaking process, in other words, even as it also becomes an equally evocative commentary on the movie industry, who the eye of Hollywood tends to see and who it doesn’t.

The horse farm belongs to the Haywoods, O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya) and Em (Keke Palmer), passed down from their father (Keith David) who made a living providing horses for Hollywood productions. Business isn’t what it once was, glimpsed in a scene where O.J. stands with one of the family equines before a green screen on some film set while Em gives the artists and crew the standard Haywood Hollywood Horse Farm lecture about how their great-great-great grandfather was the cowboy astride a horse in the very first moving image, Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion from 1878. Even if Peele is exaggerating parts of the real history for his own purposes, this becomes nothing less than a kind of Hollywood critical race theory lesson. Indeed, the people listening to it barely listen at all. They decide to digitize the horse instead.

The Haywoods mostly make money by selling parts of their stock to Ricky Park (Steven Yeun) who runs a western themed tourist trap not far from their farm. Ricky’s backstory connects to that opening image, one revealed as his own adolescent point-of-view of the bloody chimp. Yet rather than instill a lifelong sense of fear, it seems only to have produced a belief of infallibility, because where everyone else sees something uncertain or terrifying or both when they see this disc in the sky, he sees opportunity. It is something to sell, a la Art Land in “Mars Attacks!,” even as this subplot also ingeniously, insidiously equates such art with an unquenchable consumerist appetite that will, ahem, eat you alive. Ricky is juxtaposed with Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), a cinematographer on the prowl not so much for a deeper artistic truth as, simply, one perfect shot.

Antlers becomes part of O.J. and Em’s skeleton filmmaking crew along with Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), the tech salesman who helps them install a comprehensive set of cameras on their farm to try and record this mysterious disc in the sky and joins their crew of his own volition. Angel is not written with much dimension, a brief moment with his nosy co-worker (Barbie Ferreira) merely proven a comic tease rather than anything substantial, and given the performance of Wincott in tune with the lines he’s made to say, Antlers never rises above caricature, the latter partially negating the otherwise awesome rush of his fate.

Palmer and especially Kaluuya, on the other hand, are magnificent. Though consciously written and played as emotional opposites, the two actors also deftly demonstrate the bond between all that and where emotionally they line up in spite of it. Palmer’s energy is infectious and plays perfectly off Kaluuya’s quiet surliness (see: above image). His performance is emotional, brilliantly internalizing the pressure of carrying his father’s legacy, but is also technical in a kind of emotional way. If Peele is effusing the camera’s limits then Kaluuya effuses its immense, limitless power, how physical stillness responds so powerfully to its gaze and emphasizes his searching eyes in each scene that much more. The single best scene in the movie is when O.J. has picked out the disc’s hiding spot in the sky, the camera tilted up at him positioned in a doorway, Kaluuya stationary and looking to the sky with this magnetically beatific smile, illustrating the bliss of when you really see something for the first time, which Peele underlines with the reverse shot cut over his shoulder pointed toward the clouds. 

It's true that “Nope” can sometimes border on allegorical inside baseball. Like his previous films, however, Peele remains conscious of genre, and even as the nighttime images of O.J. first fleeing the extra-terrestrial pursuit underscore the camera’s sometimes restrictive view in frantic close-ups, they also ably evince standalone suspense, just as the narrative seeds Peele ingeniously plants, like an apparent prop on Ricky Park’s old west set, delightfully sprout as the movie culminates. You don’t even need to know Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion to connect images of O.J. astride a thoroughbred as black movie cowboys across the centuries to thrill to the concluding chase across the desert. But it’s also true that by informing you of it, the meaning of the chase fully blooms, Peele is asking us to be conscious of our history, of Hollywood’s history, and once you are, “Nope,” like one of those 3D paintings, comes all the way into focus. 

No comments: